It was in the middle of the mountains of Haiti where no English was spoken that the hymn “How Great Thou Art” took on a new meaning for Kyle Johnson ’10. “How Great Thou Art” was the only song Johnson’s father, Richard, had requested be played at his funeral six months before. Inspired by his father’s brave last days – which included creating a “bucket list” of things to do and places to see before he died – the younger Johnson embarked upon a yearlong mission program called The World Race mere days after graduating from Elon.
“The things I learned and saw from my dad transformed me,” Johnson says. “It was about letting God lead me for once rather than keeping him on a leash.”
The World Race is an 11-month Christian mission program that takes volunteers to 11 countries around the world and focuses on adventure, ministry, community and self-discovery. Johnson’s journey began in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he worked in a children’s home, then to China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and other destinations.
Johnson considers the mission’s final stop in Malaysia particularly powerful. He spent his time teaching math, English and science four days a week to refugees from Myanmar.
“The (Myanmar) government is basically performing genocide, and they get out any way they can,” he says of the refugees.
When they arrive in Malaysia, he says, refugees must surrender their passports, stripping themselves of citizenship in any nation while waiting for a refugee card that will allow their passage to a third country, typically the United States.
“While they’re in this limbo, it’s important for them to learn English and be introduced to what an American school looks like,” Johnson says. “I explained to them how to raise their hands or ask before going to the bathroom, because those are differences from their culture.”
Johnson recounts life-changing experiences in other nations: In South Africa, he and teammates mentored young boys living in a community riddled with violence, gangs and drugs. In Thailand, women on his team ministered to women in the sex trade while he and others herded goats and farmed tapioca in a rural community outside of Bangkok.
In China, Johnson’s team worked with children in a government-funded shelter. Eight of the shelter’s children had died the month before because of neglect, and during Johnson’s stay, two more children died.
“You see the commercials with kids living in the street, and that’s the kind of living we’ve seen,” Johnson says. “It impacted all of us to see that right in front of our faces.”
A change of plans
His journey has prompted him to reassess his previously held priorities, foremost of which was finding a job in public relations or event planning. He is no longer focused on just “making ends meet.”
“(In the book of Luke), verses eight through nine talk about how Jesus wants us to live,” Johnson says. “It really put into perspective for me what a job should be for us – it’s a way to bless others.”
While his career plans have changed, Johnson insists that skills he learned during his time at Elon will not go unused as he pursues work in preaching and the ministry.
“Public speaking, planning events, conveying an idea to a large group of people are what pastors and mission leaders have to do all the time,” Johnson says.
Johnson’s time in The World Race ended May 23. Afterward, he and two friends from the team traveled from Los Angeles to Vancouver to re-acclimate themselves to the United States.
Back to reality
While one journey has ended, another has begun – the process of approaching life without his father.
“My sister, Shannon, voiced her worries about what it’s going to be like for me to return home, back to the reality of my old surroundings without him there,” he says. “I finally came to realize that I really did kind of run away.”
Johnson says he was preoccupied with settling his father’s estate after Richard’s death, then graduating from Elon and preparing for his mission trip.
“Being so busy didn’t give me much time to stop and get used to him not being there,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like to go home, but I do know that I don’t want this trip to be the only way and time of my life that I honor him.”
Johnson is considering relocating to Arizona, where his sister lives, and finding a job that involves ministry and the freedom to travel. He’s reminded of his father’s presence each time he hears “How Great Thou Art” and carries with him a physical remembrance of Richard, too. It’s a ceramic cross he wears around his neck that bears a pinch of his father’s ashes.
“The trip was to honor him, but it’s also my first real step my life in following what I believe,” Johnson says. “I lived so long believing, but you’d never know it based on how I lived. I’ve got the rest of my life to honor my dad by first honoring God the way my father taught me.”
By Caitlin O’Donnell ’13, Office of University Relations
Click here to learn more about Johnson’s trip and view more photos from his travels.
Click here to read a story from May 2010 about Johnson’s decision to embark on The World Race.